Collective Guilt Carried Across the Afghan-American Diaspora

I have a theory, one of “collective guilt”, that comes with being Afghan and American. I feel it when I see news of Afghanistan, when my parents speak of their past, and when I hear melodies and poems from this far away place. I am reminded of my heritage every wake of my being; my mornings consist of hearing my mother sing old songs to my niece, smelling the spices my father drizzles over “tukhm” (eggs). I gaze at my reflection as I brush my teeth, and again, I am reminded of who I am. The slight slant in my eyes & my high cheekbones, a tiny reminder of my Hazara great-great grandmother. My dark hair and tall, slender body, a stark feature of most Pashtun girls. And my “accent” when I speak Afghan Farsi, officially known as Dari, the language I picked up as a child, distinguishing our Farsi from that of the Iranians, while simultaneously speaking Pashto, the language of my forefathers. I am, in every aspect, Afghan.

There is no greater pain than knowing your tax dollars contribute to the killing of innocent civilians in your country of origin. Drones have broken families on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and killed more civilians than insurgents themselves. Children are made into orphans and women are made into widows, and the struggle for stability in the region continues. The war bears little fruit, and as an Afghan-American seeing this, I cannot help but think I aided some way in this perpetual state of war.

I speak English. It is the only language I am fluent in. I spent the first 10 years of my life saluting to the American flag. I grew up with my peers curiously asking where Afghanistan was on the map. I did not know it would dominate the TV screen so soon.

Post 9/11, I hear about Afghanistan from the TV more than from my parents. I have this feeling of confusion, guilt, pain, anger, bottled inside me, all I want to do is trade places with my counterparts back home. I want to renounce everything and anything and take away the pain they are feeling. One second I feel appreciative and privileged, and the next second I feel spoiled-rotten and stupid.

I sense this guilt in my peers. From my Afghan friends at UC Irvine to my cousins who are just as American as me, we all carry it. This innate feeling that we should be doing more, that we’re stagnant in this society unless we are giving back. We feel an intrinsic sentiment of DUTY, that we MUST help back home, that we MUST spread awareness here, and pay homage to our parents past.

“Back home”. I have never been to Afghanistan. Most of my generation has not either. Afghanistan is not a vacation spot; planning a trip there carries heavy implications and most of my peers have not seen our motherland. All we see is the pain, the destruction, the women begging in the streets, the casualties of warfare, the pity the international community gives to our land. We learn of Afghanistan through books, through classes we take, through interactions with family from home, through the nostalgia our parents experience.

When I get stopped at the airport, I am reminded. When I pronounce my name, I am reminded. When I’m asked of my background, I am reminded. I automatically anticipate the response of my receiver when I say, “I’m from Afghanistan”. What will they say? A joke? A backhanded compliment? Pity? Will they ask me when I came, although I was born and raised in LA?

See, I think I can speak for my generation, when I say we’ll never feel totally 100% American. We can’t define ourselves by that label. When your TV screen displays an “enemy” that looks like you, speaks your language, eats your food, listens to your music – how can you feel American anyways? We will always be Afghan hyphen American. Afghan – American.

The Afghanistan Development Project at UC Irvine held a fundraiser every year of my attendance to aid in development back home. Our club consisted of maybe 15 students, from different parts of Afghanistan. We were political science majors, biology students, prospective engineers. But this little place the size of Texas, thousands of miles away, brought us together. We worked so hard every year for those fundraisers. It was as if the whole nation was counting on us. It was as if our hard work would show the world, our peers, our parents, that we remembered, we knew, we recognized, and we would give back to the land that shaped us, influenced us, and makes itself known in every parameter of our lives.

I think I will carry this guilt forever. My very existence in sunny Los Angeles feels like I am slapping the face of an Afghan orphan. This is how deep-seeded it is for me. But although I may feel this way for the rest of my days, I am trying, very hard, to funnel this pain and passion towards something proactive. I believe that Afghans feel a deeper sense of injustice than other groups. It is so easy for me to feel the sting of others, whether it be African-Americans, Palestinians, Syrians…I automatically “understand”.

So maybe this guilt will make us all better Americans. Maybe this guilt will allow us to actualize the principles of this country, liberty, freedom, justice for all. This is the curse of being Afghan and American, but I promise myself and my people, I will give my life to helping my brothers and sisters back home, and here in the States.

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